Film Review: Green Zone

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon translate their shock-and-awe 'Bourne' stylistics to a stiff, uneven Iraq War actioner that's more anti-invasion wish fulfillment than ideas-driven drama.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2006 nonfiction exposé about Green Zone-based staffers in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, had one salient image. It was of well-fed, well-connected Americans luxuriating around a pool, drinking beer and playing at Lawrence of Arabia while Baghdad burned. That image survives in Green Zone, the action movie that director Paul Greengrass mocked up around Chandrasekaran's book, but it's a throwaway moment, nearly not worth the effort of inclusion.

Fresh off the buzz from their last two Jason Bourne installments, Greengrass and star Matt Damon graft their patented punchiness onto a story about the hunt for WMDs and the political machinations behind it. If the film had worked, the results could have been the birth of a new genre: the action muckraker. But Green Zone fails on both counts, as thriller and smart drama.

Brian Helgeland's banal script takes primary blame. Always more comfortable with the gut-punch, Helgeland cuts to the chase time and again in a relentlessly time-compressed story that sacrifices believability for bad drama innumerable times.

Damon plays Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller. Four weeks after the March 2003 invasion, Miller's team is dashing around Iraq futilely looking for WMDs. By the time we catch up with him, Miller knows there's something fishy about the intelligence he's been given. Clark Poundstone, a shifty-eyed Pentagon official (Greg Kinnear, too well-cast), tells him not to worry, the intel is "solid." A gruff CIA officer (Brendan Gleeson, brisk and likeable) confirms Miller's suspicions about the intel source, codenamed "Magellan." After Miller almost captures one of Saddam's top generals, the conspiracy darkens.

In a worthy attempt at verisimilitude, Green Zone studs the screen with allusions to real-life figures. Magellan is clearly a reference to "Curveball," who provided most of the misinformed support for the Iraq invasion. A reporter played by Amy Ryan, who relentlessly pumped up the Magellan story for Poundstone, is meant to be Judith Miller, much of whose pre-invasion reportage was later discredited. And so on.

But any semblance of reality goes right out the window once Miller starts taking matters into his own hands. After he decides to go rogue and get to the bottom of the conspiracy, it's as though he has no commanding officer and the streets of Baghdad are his to roam free in. The opening scenes are snapped off with easy professionalism—it's thrilling to watch Damon's character think on his feet, and there's some smart rapport with an Iraqi man he hires as interpreter (the excellent Khalid Abdalla, from The Kite Runner and Greengrass' United 93)—but the initial charge wears off quickly. Chandrasekaran's take on the invaders' delusional groupthink is discarded to set up for an overlong and tiresome climactic nighttime firefight. This is perhaps the first dull chase scene that Greengrass has ever shot.

Green Zone tries at first to serve as a bulletpoint introduction to the book that inspired it. But after the action plot takes over, it turns into little more than a hollow wish-fulfillment vehicle for all those who wish that somebody had been able to blow the whistle. It's too little, far too late.